A strange week for West Ham and Andy Carroll: brutalised by Manchester City at home on Wednesday night, it had seemed as if the talk of rejuvenation had been premature. With Dimitri Payet quarantined for the wins over Crystal Palace and Middlesbrough, it was tempting to believe that those fractures were starting to heal. But then City came, they played that exhilarating attacking football, and Slaven Bilic was left feeling familiarly despondent.
But worry not: the win at St Mary’s confirmed that West Ham are now back on track and that, realistically, Pep Guardiola’s team had just been encountered at an inopportune moment. Bilic’s side are tight, resilient, and everything they weren’t two months ago.
And Carroll is finally healthy. The targetman’s importance to West Ham is beyond dispute (only once this season have they lost when he’s scored), but his long-term worth is tenuous. No matter how good his form is and regardless of the goals he scores, the fear that another injury is close never really goes disappears – a player of his size is only ever a jolt or a bad landing away from another spell on the sidelines and so it would be naive to assume his involvement over any great length of time.
But those are localised concerns, issues for Bilic and the club’s fans alone.
In broader terms, how will Carroll be remembered? He turned 28 in January and there’s a sense that, no matter what he does between now and his retirement, he will always be a prisoner to his past. In only two of his five West Ham seasons has he taken part in more than 20 Premier League games and only once in his entire career has he been involved in more than 30. Given how concentrated his contribution has often been, that’s a terrible waste.
The fear is that he will never fully escapes that Liverpool transfer-fee. Because of Derek Llambias’ dreadful posturing in its aftermath and the unfortunate fall out with Brendan Rodgers, Carroll has been forever tainted by that deal; it quite unfairly made him a laughing stock and, in this emoji-driven age, the figure of no little fun. £35m for that guy?
There really are times when Carroll looks like he could have been worth every penny of that fee. Because he has so often been under-conditioned, those occasions have been rare, but there have inarguably been games in which he has looked unstoppable. Not, of course, in the same way as Cristiano Ronaldo or Leo Messi routinely do, or even in the same manner as Dimitri Payet sometimes did but, in his own inimitable style,Carroll has been formidable more times than he’s given credit for. Imagine what that might have been amplified to had it not been for the injuries?
He’s always been the victim of a certain snobbery and assumed to be solely one-dimensional: he is the fabled “big man” at the top of the formation. However, while it would be contrary to describe him as a player of any great nuance, it would be equally reductive to describe him as a blunt, heavy object. There have been times when, right at the top of his form, Carroll has looked like a contemporary Christian Vieri: extremely good in the air, certainly, but equally awkward to deal with in all manner of situations. And yet while Vieri was a European forward to die for at the turn of the Millenium (Internazionale broke the world transfer record to sign him from Lazio), it’s still assumed that only in England would a club pay what Liverpool did for Carroll.
British football and it’s tired, outmoded imperatives; isn’t that the line?
It’s nonsense, of course. As long as the game is played, the attributes embodied by both will be cherished and without a significant change in the rules, someone of Carroll’s body shape, strength, and aerial abilities will always be enormously effective. And fascinating, too, because who doesn’t enjoy the contrast of him crashing over a centre-half with his occasionally balletic finishes.
The prevailing hope is that these final years of his prime are injury-free and successful. If nothing else, it would satisfy The curiosity as to what Carroll might have been in the Premier League and, ultimately, to England. Regardless, though, isn’t it time that that notorious £35m was allowed to represent the extent of his potential rather than the dysfunction of Liverpool’s transfer committee? British football has had umpteen unfulfilled talents and we mourn them all. But not Carroll – not a forward who, on his day, nobody has really learned how to neutralise. It’s actually rather strange.
Maybe that’s what will change in time: rather than being an emblem of broadcasting contract decadence and deadline day panic, perhaps he will eventually be seen as the once-in-a-generation force that he probably should have been?